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My Asian-American Life

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By O.K. Pham

"I don't think of you as Vietnamese anymore-- just as my wife."

My husband Shaun stated as he leaned back in his chair, after a thoughtful sip of his Saison. We were savoring a backyard lunch together on one of those perfect Saturday afternoons in late June. I stared at him across the table where a dwindling platter of steamed corn and grilled London broil sat.The kids had already run off after devouring their lunch, treating us to the luxury of an uninterrupted conversation. My gaze fell from my husband's red hair to his grayish blue eyes, before finding the smile that had been the prelude to our many dialogues.

Even after 14 years of marriage, I am still occasionally amused by the striking differences in our appearance. Shaun has blue eyes, red hair, and fair skin. I am a brown-eyed brunette with a raw umber complexion. Under summer's heat and sun Shaun burns while I tan. Our four kids have inherited my skin tones, and only our oldest daughter appears slightly Asian with her almond-shaped eyes. All have brown eyes; two with glimmering flecks of green. All are brunette with unmistakable red highlights, and wild curls cover our youngest son's head! None, I regretfully admit, could speak a word of Vietnamese.

Long before I met my husband in college my mother had warned me about the "callous Caucasians" I would encounter in life. I had dismissed her advice as unreasonable, if not biased. She was much too entrenched in the Vietnamese culture to be able to absorb another, I reasoned to myself. After all, this was the woman who was content not to learn English or to drive a car, despite having lived in the United States for a quarter of a century.

But in all fairness, she was working in a minority-filled factory alongside my father for most of those years, and he had faithfully served as her driver, interpreter, and voice. All her "free" moments were devoted to housekeeping and the tedious care of us kids. My parents also made it clear that they planned to return to Viet Nam to retire, after all their children were grown and the last debt was paid.Vietnamese street scene.jpg

I was the last of their four children to attend college, determined to fulfill the classic immigrant's dream. However, my family questioned my choice of English as a major at La Salle University, especially when it was measured up against the technical degrees held by my older siblings and relatives.

My brother, who graduated from Drexel as a mechanical engineer, quipped when speculating on my post-graduation plans: "She might just write a bestseller on unemployment". Their uncertainty persisted as I began dating Shaun, also an English major, at the start of my junior year. Still I graduated with the sincere hope of being able to support my parents financially,  to repay them for all their years of sacrifice. I did acquire and maintain an entry-level job as a disbursements specialist at a major life insurance company for nearly a year, before a "surprise" pregnancy necessitated a break from the working world.

That break turned into a 14-year, still ongoing hiatus. The arrival of three more kids further deepened our commitment to each other. My mother's initial doubts about our future eventually dissipated, along with her preconceptions about the nature of the American male. Shaun's amazing work ethic solidifies his role as a provider, and it has enabled me to remain at home, hopefully until our youngest enrolls in kindergarten.

In the spring of 2006 my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer, shortly after my parents lost their house due to my father's failed business venture. Shaun and I opened up our modest home to them, which was already filled with the liveliness of kids. There were challenges, with the language barrier being the most notable, but we all worked towards creating a comfortable atmosphere. My mother underwent a hysterectomy and was cancer-free for the next three years. I felt honored to be able to provide my parents with a place to stay, and for a while the private guilt of deviating from my original plan to support my parents subsided. Shaun and my mother loved to play poker, and they bonded over those nightly games the four of us would play. The bets were never higher than five dollars, and Shaun learned to trash-talk in Vietnamese from my mother. I don't know which was funnier: his accent or the unexpectedly appropriate timing of his outbursts.

The cancer returned in full force to claim my mother's life in November 2009. She took her last breath in the bedroom where my parents stayed at our house. A week before her death, I held her hand and whispered a promise while she lay in a morphine-laced stupor: When we meet again in the afterlife I will teach you English and how to drive a car. I think of my mother everyday of my life but do not leap into the chasm of regret. I know she would want me to go on living for my husband and children, and to finally start writing.

 

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